The Robbie Sparrow’ Story
A retired sports’ journalist who we come to know only by his nickname, ‘Lumpy’, decides to tell the life story of one of his earliest and most interesting friends, Robbie Sparrow. The writer is caught in a dilemma; should he ‘tell it like it was’, or sanitise a life for a more palatable product. After consultation with the subject of the proposed book, ‘Lumpy’ finally decides to recount the story ‘warts and all’.
So we share Robbie’s naughty, and sometimes wicked childhood, his adventurous and experimental teenage years, and the early part of his working life, which sees him fishing commercially up and down the West Australian coast. The last fishing trip results in a period of incarceration in Fremantle Gaol.
Called up for National Service, Robbie subsequently does a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Upon his return he retreats to a bush block in the great southern of Western Australia. ‘Lumpy’ helps his friend develop the block and build his house, and meets Angela for the first time. Then with commitments at two America’s Cups, ‘Lumpy’ and Robbie lose touch.
When there is a ‘twitch on the thread’ everything has changed, and not for the better. A previous ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between Robbie and Cliff Birmingham, honoured years before, is now paid back in spades, and Robbie Sparrow has some ‘golden years’, and a positive influence on some young lives. ‘Lumpy’ gets an ending to his book, but it really wasn’t the one he wanted.
On the 26th March 1951 The West Australian reported that a young man had slipped over the side of a small fishing boat in Gage Roads off the coast from Fremantle, Western Australia. The report went on to say that the young man’s name was Robert Graham Sparrow and he was twenty-three years of age. He was Robbie Sparrow’s father.
At the time Robbie Sparrow was only nine months old and I had been alive just six months. So began the strange and often tumultuous story of Robbie Sparrow. I wouldn’t join the tale for another four years and then our lives would become intertwined for another fifty. Sometimes it was a close association and on other occasions we would be drawn apart, often for long periods, however like all strong interactions we affected one another’s lives profoundly.
Eventually when a lot of time passes you start to review your life in retrospect and there are always things that have been left undone. You come to the realisation that if you don’t do them soon, then they will never be done and that part of a life will be lost forever. That is how I felt about the story of Robbie Sparrow, who I came to call the Spiv. He has always been on my mind. Perhaps it is because he was one of my earliest friends and I knew him off and on until his death near the end of last century. More probably it is because he was one of the most interesting people I have ever known, both as a boy and a young man and then later, although I didn’t share much of that part of his life with him, as a man.
I had written things all my life as part of my career and when I retired in 2006, I was determined to eschew that as a pastime in my declining years. However, after years of DIY projects and endless gardening and the occasional journey, Robert Sparrow kept coming back to me, so I knew I had to do something about him. Before I started I had some real concerns. Chief among them was the issue of an authorised and unauthorised biography. In an authorised biography the subject is usually still alive and not only gives their permission for their life story to be told, but also has some form of editorial oversight. Conversely an unauthorised biography is one where any form of editorial rights is denied. When unauthorised biographies are published it is usually not all that is denied. The content is often questioned as part of a process of undermining the writer who didn’t get permission to tell the story in the first place.
I think this is an authorised biography even though the Spiv has been dead for the past seventeen years. In our last conversation when I suggested to the Spiv that I might attempt this project, at some stage in the future, he made one request:
“Well if that’s what you want to do I have no objections, but I do have one request.”
“What’s that Spivey?”
“Please tell it like it was and is. Don’t sanitise my life and make me better in death than I was in life. If you can’t do that then we shouldn’t kid ourselves and might as well not record anything at all.”
“Warts and all, Spivey?”
“Warts and all; the bad behaviour, risqué bits, the sex, my time in gaol and National Service and all the sorrow, death and depression. You won’t have any trouble writing the ‘golden years’ particularly at Baldivis. You’ll enjoy that. You can also include all the times I urged you to break your duck as well.”
“It’s a deal, Spivey.”
That conversation has become the defining mantra of this memoir. At times I wrote things and showed snippets to people and they would frown and say things like:
“You’re not really going to include that are you?”
That is when I would get discouraged and put the project to one side, but after a hiatus the magnetic attraction of the Spiv would draw me back. Then the cycle of starting and stopping would repeat itself seemingly endlessly. During the writing process, I have flushed with embarrassment at times, as I retold things that haven’t been mentioned for half a century. I shuddered when I recalled and relived some events and I must admit I have shed a few tears of both joy and sadness, as I typed away.
The Spiv is dead and all but a few of the players who fill up these pages have followed him on that last journey through ‘the vale of tears’. Do not judge him too harshly, in the end he was just my friend and I remember him fondly and miss our interactions. The only thing I do not miss is the nickname he gave me that endured throughout our shared lives. I use it here, but no one else is entitled to use it as the Spiv did.
So why was this ‘Introduction and Explanation’ necessary? Well I guess it is like one of those warnings you hear at the start of a particularly provocative television series.
“The material included here may offend some viewers.”
In this case the material may offend some readers. If you choose to read on then you do so in the full knowledge of the nature of some of the upcoming topics I have ‘teased’ you with here.
Now let’s go back to the beginning and see what sense we can make out of the Spiv’s journey.
Our story now jumps ahead four years. In that period I had no contact with the Spiv at all. I was in Melbourne working for the paper, and I could tell you about those four tumultuous years, the things I fell into and the things I fell out of, but this is not my story. It is sufficient to say that while I lived that period I thought they were ‘the lean years’. With the benefit of hindsight they were some of the richest times of my life and I still look back on them fondly. Anyway after four years working primarily as a sporting journalist for the paper in Melbourne, I got an opportunity to come back to The West Australian in a promotional position and I grabbed the chance with both hands. It was early December 1977 when I landed again in Perth and Mum and Dad picked me up at the airport and I stayed with them.
In the week before Christmas, I decided to drive down to Dryandra uninvited and give the Spiv a surprise. I hadn’t seen him in so long and I was keen to see how the property had developed. I was now driving an ‘Atlantis Blue’ Holden Commodore, part of the salary package the paper had generously offered and the car made light work of the drive to Narrogin and then on to the Spiv’s bush block. When I turned off the road the first thing I noticed was the graded gravel drive that had replaced the sand track. When the trees parted to reveal the house I was astounded. The house looked magnificent. It was all-complete and the gardens at the front were well tended. To the right and not quite in the position I had expected, was a huge stabling shed neatly tucked into the bush and surrounded by stable yards with perfect post and rail fences painted white. Idling their way around the first paddock were two gigantic Clydesdales. I also noted the little green shed had gone.
The Spiv came out of the stables wiping his hands on a piece of towelling and walked towards the car, which he clearly didn’t recognise. I got out and was greeted with a familiar shout:
“Well blow me down, ‘Lumpy’. What a surprise!”
He came across and our hand shake turned into a big bear hug. When we drew away from each other I had a chance to look at him for the first time. He was wearing his hair much longer than he used to and his face looked a little bit older but he still looked as fit as a fiddle.
“I thought I would come down uninvited and see what you were up to. The place looks really good.”
“It’s taken a long time and it has been a hell of a lot of work, but we are getting there.”
The journalist’s antennae picked up the “we” straight away. The Spiv had never used the royal plural before so I guessed there was someone else in the equation. Then as if on cue she walked out of the stables. She was wearing jeans and riding boots, just like the Spiv, but had on what I would describe as a Canadian timberman’s shirt, which was neatly tucked into her jeans. She didn’t wear a hat and so her jet black shoulder length hair caught the sunlight and shone.
“Of course you haven’t met Angela have you?”
Angela came across; she had that no nonsense look about her, but up close she had a pretty face.
“Angela, this is my good friend ‘Lumpy’.”
“Hi Angela it’s nice to meet you.”
I put out my hand to shake hers, but she was having none of that and she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Then she smiled and said:
“I can’t call you ‘Lumpy’. What’s your real name?”
I told her and from that point onwards the Spiv still remained the only person who ever called me ‘Lumpy’”.
“Well come inside, we were just about to break for coffee. You’re going to stay aren’t you? Have you got any luggage?”
“You can get him organised later, Angela, let’s have that coffee.”
So we went into the house through the double front doors. The stained glass inserts in the doors and the surrounding panels were eye catching, but once inside it was a revelation. The furnishings were simple and tasteful and the interior finish and design of the huge lounge room was impressive. We went through to the kitchen, which now looked modern, light, airy and functional. The original stove had gone and was replaced by one of those Aga wood-burning ranges in a warm beige colour. The cupboards and the furniture were all in colonial design and a light cedar colour. I was asked to sit down and Angela percolated some coffee and put out a plate of home made Florentine biscuits.
Over beautiful nutty flavoured coffee and Florentines, we caught up on four years of lost time. Now here I have to observe that it has been my experience that when you have a long term friendship with a boy who becomes a man and then a third party enters the scene, it is often a harbinger of the end of the close relationship. I have experienced this with male friends who have married, or taken a live-in partner. It’s the old adage of two being company and three becoming a crowd. It seems it never really works.
Why is that I wonder? Is it because the things you shared with the particular friend are not relevant to the new wife or partner? Or is it that the jolly green giant called ‘jealousy’ enters the fray and the new companion resents what you have shared and possibly still could share with your friend. Anyway it is my experience that it almost always ends in a fracturing of the original friendship and you just drift apart. I had seen it too often. So I had a few strategies for it these days. I tried to avoid meeting the friend and his partner together. I turned down dinner party invitations and offers to go out, or travel together. Keeping each relationship separate. This time, however, I walked into the situation uninvited and I was on my guard for the telltale signs of resentment or antagonism. None came.
Angela just accepted me as the Spiv’s long term friend and so I would be hers too. It has never changed over the years and it is a real relief. The first thing I needed to discover was how they had come to be living together. They told me early on that they were not married and were not contemplating it. It seems that when the Spiv got the hayrides going with the old wagon and the Clydesdales, he quickly discovered that night hayrides through the Dryandra forest were very popular, particularly with young adults. So he invested in some lanterns, which he rigged on a frame on the dray and conducted twilight rides into the forest which finished in the dark and a barbeque afterwards.
“I got the idea in Vietnam, when I saw how fabulous the jungle looked at night. Of course the problem was that there were people in the jungle trying to kill you. Here in the forest there are no risks like that, but I do tell some ghost stories to heighten the mood on the ride”
Angela went on to say how she had heard about the hayrides at night and so she brought a couple of her old school friends, who were staying with her along and they took the hayride.”
“I thought Robbie was so kind and gentle the way he conducted himself, and he was the perfect hayride host. I also noticed that he was a very good looking guy.”
“I had a shirt on ‘Lumpy’, it was my face she was looking at.”
We shared the joke and then Angela said how the two of them got talking over the barbeque that is held at the end of the hayride and when she found out he had stables and a trail riding business, she asked if she could come and have a look. The Spiv took up the story and said
“Angela came out a few days later. The new stables had just been erected and I was painting the stable yard fences.”
“But the only horses he had were the two Clydesdales.”
Then Angela told me she had a horse trainer’s licence and was training a couple of slow old geldings in rented stables near Narrogin. She asked the Spiv straight up if she could stable her horses on his property and ride them work along the bush tracks in the forest. She offered to pay, but the Spiv said if she helped him with the Clydesdales and with buying the trail horses she could stable her pair for free.
“It was a done deal. I used to drive out each day to ride work and then one day Robbie offered to cook dinner and asked me if I wanted to stay overnight?”
“Angela moved in a few days later and has been here ever since. We are a good team. While she looks after the horses I can do three hayrides a day during the tourist season and we are just starting to get a decent cash flow?”
I was intrigued by all of this. Clearly they were very much attracted to one another and no doubt the sex was exceptional, but I wasn’t going to ask about that. So I tried to steer the conversation in another way.
“So how did the two slow old geldings get on?”
“Well they thrived on the bush work in the forest, so I entered them both at the mid week Narrogin races.”
The Spiv chimed in:
“I was the strapper, it was a new experience for me.”
“He did really well. After I saddled the horses, Robbie took them around the parade ring and into the mounting yard. That gave me time to have a bet.”
“A bet? Am I sensing a happy and profitable ending to this story?”
“Well partly. One of the horses ran fifth in a big field in the Restricted 68 race and the other one, God bless his four white feet, ran a close second in the maiden over 1200 metres.”
“Second. Did you back him each way?”
“At forty to one. That is a quarter of the odds for the place. So ten to one the place.”
“With the nine hundred dollars prizemoney for second and the five hundred dollars for the place bet, we came home with enough money to pay the feed bill for a month.”
“So have you won any races with them?”
“No we set them to work on the trail rides. They are saddle horses now and doing well. I will show them to you later.”
“So have you given up training?”
“Angela has two new projects on the go, but that is another story. We think we might win a race with one of them. It’s a long term project, but if I think we can get a win I’ll let you know and you can come and share in the fun. It is a bit thrilling on race day.”
After morning coffee I got the full tour. I was shown the guest room upstairs with its ensuite bathroom and classic bath and beautiful fittings and told to make myself at home. The Spiv and Angela’s room was like something out of a homemaker’s catalogue. It had that gorgeous feminine touch and the big window overlooked the stables and the stable yards. The tour of the stables was impressive. Inside the stabling shed was cavernous and the horses each had a sizeable loose box. There was a tack room full of all the gear for the saddle horses and trail rides. A feed storage and mixing area was spotless and there was a hosing down bay. We stopped in front of one stall and Angela proudly introduced me to ‘Canungra’. She was a magnificent black three-year-old filly.
“We registered her racing name as ‘Canungra’, after one of the training camps in Queensland that Robbie went to before being sent to Vietnam. Her stable name is ‘Carrie’. She’s unraced and how we got her is a story in itself. No doubt Robbie will tell you the whole thing over a beer, and this is ‘Jack’.”
We moved along one stall and there was a chestnut gelding. He came up to the front of the box and nuzzled me and I stroked his nose. Angela explained:
“He’s just a big baby boy. Robbie got him in the same deal that secured us ‘Carrie’. He’s a four-year-old gelding. He has raced but is unplaced at this stage. It is another good story we can tell you later.”
“And what name does ‘Jack’ race under?”
“Puckapunyal! What else!”
From there the Spiv led the way into the stable yards and I met the two Clydesdales. They were so big and a little daunting.”
“You didn’t call them Bonny and Clyde did you?”
The Spiv smiled and shook his head.
“I thought about it, but as they are both geldings it would not have worked. The breeder doesn’t sell his fillies and mares and the stallion at the Clydesdale stud is worth more than this house.”
“So what are they called?”
“Dan and Ron. It’s a family thing.”
Angela was supportive:
“I like the names.”
“I think I do too, but for different reasons.”
I was going to have to forgive Ronnie for the bloodied nose, all those years ago, if I was going to love the big Clydesdales.
We went for a walk in the bush and soaked up the warm sunshine and the delightful sounds and smells and then we came back to the house for a ploughman’s lunch, which Angela prepared with unhurried efficiency. The lunch was washed down with the first of many beers.